The fatal shooting on Sunday of a Lagos man near a football viewing centre was the high point of a controversial — and possibly unauthorised — police raid of citizens wearing curly hair and dreadlocks, one of the victims has told PREMIUM TIMES.
Kolade Johnson was killed after being hit by a stray bullet fired by officers attached to police special anti-cultism squad as he watched a Liverpool Vs Tottenham live match in Mangoro, according to social media account and his longtime friend. He was 36.
The officers fled the scene as they realised Mr Johnson had been hit, and did not offer emergency support to evacuate him to the hospital, witnesses said. Friends, family and relatives have been mourning since he was pronounced dead at the hospital moments after he was short around 4:30 p.m.
Dennis Ikpoba, a long time friend of Mr Johnson’s who witnessed the fatal shooting, told PREMIUM TIMES the police were in the neighbourhood to arrest a man wearing dreadlocks. The officers shot to disperse a crowed gathering to witness the arrest of man, who was identified as Ismail Folorunsho and said to be a familiar face in the neighbourhood.
A riot that broke out shortly after the incident saw a temporary blockade of Lagos-Abeokuta Expressway, which is amongst the busiest freeways in the nation’s commercial capital.
The outrage on social media was equally riveting and spontaneous, leading to a renewed campaign for the Nigerian government to act to end the notorious SARS unit of the force.
The Force Headquarters responded on Monday by ordering detention and orderly room trial of three officers connected to the raid. But many Nigerians insisted this did not go far enough, and campaign for all special police squads to be scrapped has intensified.
Criminalising curly hair, dreadlocks
Apart from Mr Folorunsho, other people who carried dreadlocks in Mangoro were also targeted on Sunday by the police unit, PREMIUM TIMES learnt.
Deji Omoloja left his home in Agege for a film shooting at Freedom Park, Lagos Island, when he was picked up at Ikeja Under Bridge for carrying a curly hair.
“I wanted to join a bus under the bridge when somebody just pulled me from the back and started slapping and punching me,” Mr Omoloja told PREMIUM TIMES Monday morning. “Before I could know what was going on, I was already shoved into a Danfo bus waiting nearby.”
Mr Omoloja said there were about five plainclothes officers in the bus, but only one of them had a face cap that bore the logo and inscription of the police special anti-cultism unit. He said the officer, whom he described as tall, dark, bald and huge with protruded belly, might have led the team.
He said when they picked him up, there were about eight other persons in the bus, all young, male and carrying either curly hair or dreadlocks.
He said the officers then sped off towards Mangoro, violently picking up more people along the way.
“It was when we got to Mangoro that they wanted to arrest another man wearing dreadlocks near a viewing centre,” Mr Omoloja said. “But as they were arresting the man, some people gathered to ask why they wanted to arrest him, only for the team leader to come down from the bus and start shooting in the air.”
“Immediately, we saw that somebody had been shot, and the driver left the place and drove us straight to their office by Charly Boy in Gbagada,” he added.
Mr Omoloja said some of them lapped one another in the bus, and he became exhausted by the time they arrived at the squad’s office.
“They just started saying it was illegal to do curly hair or dreadlocks, and asked us many times whether we were cultists or if we had killed anyone before in rival clashes,” he added.
Mr Omoloja said after a few hours, he was allowed to call his parents, who came with his mother to have him released.
“I suspect that my dad gave them money before they released me, because I know that some other people who were released ahead of me paid the police officers,” Mr Omoloja said. He added that there were still more of them left in police custody as of the time he left on Sunday night.
“I thought I was going to die,” Mr Omoloja said, adding that they were just slapping and hitting him and others without considering their health situation, including himself who suffers from sickle cell anemia.
Mr Omoloja said he did not intend to publicly speak about his ordeal for fear of being targeted by the officers who now have his address and contact details of both himself and his parents, but he was persuaded to tell of his ordeal after seeing Mr Johnson’s killing in the media.
“It was when I was released and came back home that I saw the video online, I quickly remembered that it was the same incident I had witnessed around Mangoro,” Mr Omoloja said. “It was very disturbing.”
No hiding place
Mr Omoloja was unable to identify any of the officers by name, but said he took a mental note of their faces and conducts throughout his ordeal, with similarly vivid memory of where they were driven to.
His ordeal bore stark resemblance to a typical tactics of Lagos police officers randomly picking up young men without credible suspicion that has lingered for decades, Segun Awosanya, a police reform campaigner, told PREMIUM TIMES Monday afternoon.
But despite all the witnesses’ accounts, Michael Akindipe, the second-in-command at police special anti-cultism unit in Lagos, told PREMIUM TIMES the officers were not of the squad.
“They are not from anti-cultism,” Mr Akindipe said on Monday. “We have all the list of our officers, and they did not conduct the operation.”
Mr Akindipe said the police special anti-robbery squad (SARS) may be responsible for the incident. He, however, said efforts had commenced to unmask the officers behind the operation, and encouraged the public to come forward with information.
“We are working seriously to get to the bottom of this matter,” Mr Akindipe said. “We are not going to condone officers spoiling the name and institution of the police.”
He also told PREMIUM TIMES that anti-cultism unit did not criminalise wearing of curly hair and dreadlocks, neither did it issue directive for officers to arrest people with those hairstyles.
“Curly hair and dreadlocks styles are not illegal and people should not be targeted for their hairstyles,” the senior officer said. “We only get intelligence on cultism around Lagos and we send officers to investigate and make arrests when necessary, but not to randomly arrest people on the road for their hairstyles.”
Mr Awosanya said the police are trying to cover up the case, but that a citizens-led push has commenced to ensure justice.
“We have gathered enough evidence to rubbish the denial of the police and their attempt to muddle up the case and avoid the consequences of their action,” Mr Awosanya said. “They will soon realise that Nigerian are set to ensure that the death of Michael Johnson did not go in vain.”
Mr Awosanya said “police’s games” around Mr Johnson’s death showed how invaluable they see Nigerian lives, especially persons not politically or financially influential.
Although he welcomed the arrest of three officers Monday afternoon, he downplayed the measure as insufficient.
“We are tired of cosmetic punishment of officers anytime something goes wrong,” Mr Awosanya said. “What Nigerians are demanding is a complete overhaul of the system, and we will stop at nothing until this is done.”
“The crisis ravaging our police force is systemic, and nothing short of a fundamental restructuring can address it,” he added.
Friends and relatives hailed Mr Johnson as a dedicated and disciplined young man on Monday, as more pictures of his lifetime were being posted online.
PREMIUM TIMES learnt from family sources that his remains would be buried after an autopsy had been concluded. Mr Johnson was not married, but he was survived by a two-year-old son.